Ken Kling‘s Joe and Asbestos was the premier American horse-racing tip strip, running almost a half a century (with a few hiatuses). It started as a syndicated strip in 1923, then eventually settled in at the New York Mirror and when that paper folded, the New York Daily News, where it lasted until 1968.
Asbestos, the second banana of the strip, was a black character drawn in the typical minstrel-show blackface style of the 1920s. This was the standard depiction of cartoon black characters in those days. In the 1940s, though, that imagery finally started losing traction on the comics page. Some black characters were redesigned in a more racially sensitive style, but most, to be perfectly frank, just disappeared. My guess is that many cartoonists were so used to the minstrel depiction and the mushmouth argot that nearly always went along with it, that they had no clue how to make a funny black character without resorting to those stereotypes.
Given that Asbestos was a co-star of his strip, Ken Kling stuck with the character. I know that in the 1940s Asbestos continued to be drawn in the original way. Unfortunately I don’t have any samples of the strip in my collection from the 1950s, but I have enough circumstantial evidence to say that the minstrel look made it well into that decade, maybe all the way through.
What I do know is that by 1963, when the Mirror folded and the Daily News took on the strip, Asbestos had finally been transformed into a normal looking character. How he made it so long in blackface amazes me, especially in a progressive city like New York, but never underestimate the force of inertia.
Kling kept the strip running in the Daily News until June 1968, when he was well into his seventies, but then he became ill and the strip faded away without so much as a farewell. Kling passed away in 1969.
Despite Ken Kling going to his reward, the late race track tout somehow managed to sell Joe and Asbestos to a new paper in town. The name of that paper was the New York Mirror. Wait, huh? I just said the Mirror folded. So the name is worth a short digression. When the original Hearst-owned New York Mirror went belly up in 1963, the New York Daily News had purchsed the trademark to the name of their arch-rival paper to assure no one could use it. Apparently, though, they failed to renew the trademark at some point and the name became fair game. So when a new prospective publisher came to town wanting to publish a slightly sleazy tabloid (which is what the Mirror was) he gleefully took the trademark. End of digression.
It is safe to say that Ken Kling probably didn’t have all that much to do with the strip by the 1960s. It certainly doesn’t look like his artwork. So my guess is that the 1960s ghost is who offered the strip to the new Mirror. The Mirror already had a pullout race track sheet, so they liked the idea. So sometime in 1971 the strip came back from the dead, still bylined and signed by the very much dead Ken Kling.
So I had to tell you all that as background. The real point of this post is this: I recently found in my giant ‘to be filed’ piles a short stack of New York Mirrors from July 1971. Checking out the issues, I came across something pretty darn unsettling. My first issue is Saturday July 10 and here is the Joe and Asbestos strip they ran that day:
As you can see, Asbestos is featured in his normal post-minstrel version; the version that had been used for at the very least almost a decade. Now here is the strip of Monday, July 12:
“What’s the idea?” is right, lady! Starting on this day, Asbestos has taken a giant leap backward to the bad old days.Not only is he wearing the ‘blackface’ makeup, he’s also using the mushmouth dialect of yore. And this isn’t just a strange one-day trip to the bizarro world, this was the new (old) look of Asbestos that would continue at least through the rest of my Mirror issues of July 1971.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’ll be damned if I can come up with an explanation that makes any sense. Why in 1971, so long after such images were considered fit for publication, did the New York Mirror decide that it was a good idea to revert Asbestos to this outdated offensive version? Just a note to those of you reading this who are too young to know the world of 1971 — no, such imagery was NOT considered okay This was the era of Wee Pals, Quincy and Friday Foster, not Old Black Joe for goodness sake.
Unfortunately, the 1971 version of the New York Mirror has not been digitized as far as I know, so I have no way to find out if there was any sort of reader backlash. I do know that the strip ran there until December 1971, so the ghost creator and his comic strip obviously did not get summarily kicked out of the paper. This is one of those ‘WTF’ discoveries that may never be answered, but it sure is weird. And pretty sad, too.
UPDATE 1/1/2023: Just received a copy of the October 5 1971 edition of the paper, and by then Asbestos was back to being portrayed in a ‘modern’ way, no blackface or mushmouth.